From its inception, Kingdom Come: Deliverance was billed as a game steeped in realism. From period-accurate food and weapon damage to characters drawn from history, Warhorse Studios did its homework. With the game’s release last week, we finally got to play in their (as promised) realistic version of 15th century Bohemia.
And it’s oddly baffling.
It’s easy to understand what a game so focused on realism and accuracy means — you can’t fly and there are no laser rifles in 15th century Bohemia. It’s much harder to understand a video game that takes that premise of unrelenting realism so seriously. Many hours in, I’ve learned to love this strange and confusing game, a process that started with examining my expectations.
We can be heroes (or not)
Video games tend to have a simple premise: Find sword. Swing sword. Save world. Sure, there are fun twists from time to time, but games usually boil down to being the hero. But in Kingdom Come: Deliverance, you play as Henry, son of a Bohemian blacksmith in 1403. From minute one of this game, it’s clear he’s not a hero of legend.
When destiny comes calling, Henry can either stand and fight or run away as fast as he can. When it comes to big damn heroes — your Links, your Samuses (Samusi?), your Masters Chief — there’s no question what they’d do. But when it comes to Henry — who rolled out of bed at the crack of noon just a couple hours ago to do his chores — there’s a very real chance that playing the hero will get him killed (spoiler: it will definitely get him killed).
I struggled with this concept for an embarrassingly long time. Despite everything I already knew about Henry, three decades of gaming experience convinced me that I knew exactly what to do. I squared up against the bad guys and swung the sword that fate handed me. And I failed. Over and over again for, if I’m being honest, hours.
It took me so long because I know how to play games — “Find sword. Swing sword. Save world.” I was certain I was right and that the game was wrong, so I kept trying, again and again, to figure out how to be the hero. Out of desperation and frustration, I ran away — and I didn’t stop running until I was behind some thick walls being protected by trained soldiers. And it worked.
That’s where Kingdom Come: Deliverance became infinitely more enjoyable: when I stopped forcing my expectations of playing a larger-than-life hero and started roleplaying a very human peasant. That transition from thinking about the game as an escapist, wish-fulfillment, hack-n-slash action movie into a reality-based peasant simulator was profound.
It’s not just that Henry’s not some big hero. It’s that you as the player don’t get to play as a big hero either — you get to play as Henry. And you have to remember that Henry is human. He has to eat, sleep and bathe. He has a job and a boss. Running away from fights, watching what you eat and showing up to work on time are all things a video game hero wouldn’t normally do, but they are all things Henry would (and has to) do.
I found it impossibly frustrating at first, but as I became more accepting of Henry’s humanity, it became easy to understand both what the game expected of me and how to get there. And in that intersection of tempered expectations and realism, I learned to love the game.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is ambitious. It doesn’t compromise on the original promise of realism. At first, abandoning the “yes, and …” empowerment you usually get from video games felt off-putting. That was an expectation I had to examine and, ultimately, abandon. And I’m glad I did because it freed me to explore the world Warhorse Studios created for a blacksmith’s son without my own hero fantasies coloring it.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance didn’t just create some realistic physics or accurate weapons. It created a realistic human protagonist. Managing all of Henry’s needs isn’t a ponderous new mechanic to learn — you know all the rules because you, presumably, are already a human. When the game gets confusing or you hit a wall, the trick is not to outthink the game, but to ask yourself what Henry, or for that matter you, would do.
It’s fun to play as the destiny-touched warrior on their journey to punch a god, but Kingdom Come: Deliverance shows that there’s also fun in being the best damn peasant you can be. It can be a little more freeing actually, without all that extra destiny and fate-of-the-world baggage.
Kingdom Come: Deliverance isn’t without its stumbles. Warhorse Studios occasionally fell just short of its ambitious goals. The game has more than its fair share of graphical glitches — missing weapon assets or textures and other little things like missing buildings. It feels buggy and broken at times — and it is — but the game is fun in spite of its shortcomings. It’s quirky, not infuriating.
None of the forgiveness I’m advocating would be possible without something to prop up those missteps. It needs something to make the flaws less noticeable. And that’s why Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s story is so important.
Henry finds himself unwittingly caught up in 15th-century geopolitical drama. It’s a rich and detailed story. And it doesn’t really involve Henry.
Henry’s not a member of the ruling family, aristocracy or the elite. He’s caught up in their drama, but his personal aspirations are just as restricted by realism as his abilities are. In this peasant simulator, the fun lies not in becoming even more superhuman, but in finding the best outcome given the restrictions of Henry’s provincial life.
Henry isn’t alone in his provincial life, either. The world of Kingdom Come: Deliverance is full of other inhabitants with lives, jobs and plenty to say. Their dozens of hours of dialogue aren’t restricted to exposition or repetitive NPC catchphrases (though there is plenty of that, too). NPCs tend to be characters, not just things to talk at. The care that clearly went into their creation makes the world feel more real.
I certainly didn’t expect to become emotionally invested in the royal court drama of 15th century Czechia, but it didn’t take long before I found myself with very strong opinions about usurper kings. And that was thanks to the story and the writing. Add in the very thorough codex, which supplies history lessons and background details, and Kingdom Come: Deliverance creates about as engrossing a game as I’ve ever played.
There are two ways to approach history and historical fiction like Kingdom Come: Deliverance. (There are way more than two approaches, but for simplicity and for the purposes of discussing a video game, these are the two I’ll focus on.) One is Thomas Carlyle’s great man theory, where “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” (please note that all gendered language is original here and is not how I’d prefer to phrase it). The other is social history which focuses instead on people, not leaders, and their everyday lives. Henry is decidedly not one of Carlyle’s great men.
In Kingdom Come: Deliverance, you’re just some guy who got in over his head and finds himself swept up in a story much larger than himself. It’s sometimes confusing and deliberately slow and filled with people telling you what to do but not how to do it. It’s messy and unfair.
Just like life.